Why Meerkats make rubbish story-tellers
“I should have done better”
“I always mess things up”
“I’m a bad person”
Any of these sound familiar? They are just words, right? They don’t mean anything, no big deal.
Phrases like the above have been popping up a lot around me recently, in my clients, friends, and yes, even my own head and so this month’s blog is shining a light on the negative scripts that can run through our head.
Now let me make this clear, right from the off – having thought these thoughts does not mean you are mentally ill, depressed, crazy, or any of the other negative labels flying about. It’s just that our brains are really good at noticing, remembering and documenting all the times things have gone wrong, you felt hurt, embarrassed and any other ‘negative’ event in your life. As crappy as this is, it kind of makes sense …
If your brain can quickly recognise a situation as something that in the past has caused pain, sadness and embarrassment then it will be quicker to activate survival mechanisms to help you avoid it. Brilliant. However, that survival mechanism is pretty single-minded and solely focussed on the potential danger, think of it like a meerkat:
A meerkat pops its head up, and sees a danger, such as a lion and then reacts to it. The meerkat doesn’t pay attention to any other details, like, the fact the focus of the lion is on a nearby antelope NOT the meerkat, or that moving the whole gang of meerkats will actually draw the lion’s attention and actually put some of the gang in real danger, which could have been avoided – it just hones in on the lion.
This is similar to how our brain works when it senses a danger – and that danger doesn’t need to be physical, it can be a perceived danger to our emotional wellbeing. Every time our brain senses a danger, whether it be an event we experienced which was physically dangerous, a mistake we have made, an event that didn’t go the way we wanted - it documents it along with the subsequent feelings and thoughts and ‘suggestions’ of how we ‘should’ behave, think and feel in future into our own personal book of, well, negativity.
When we find ourself in an overwhelming situation, and let’s face it, everybody’s coping bucket is pretty full at the moment, our brain triggers our saved scripts as a quick ‘how-to’ reference guide – these scripts are saved in the oldest part of our brain, called the reptilian brain (though I prefer to think of it as a meerkat). This part of the brains sole purpose has developed to ensure we survive and so, it is the fastest part of our brain to come ‘on-line’ – great for when we are faced with a sabre-tooth tiger in the street, however, like meerkats, it doesn’t engage logic, rational, or take in any of the wider picture and in that moment in goes to your saved scripts:
“bad things always happen to you because you are bad”
“nothing ever goes right – you are going to get eaten by that sabre-tooth tiger”
“nobody cares about you, nobody will help”
These scripts can be categorised into 10 common ‘cognitive distortions’ which have been brilliantly summarised by www.psychologytools.org
So, if these scripts make up our ‘how-to’ book of negativity hardwired in our brain, that’s it then, we’re stuck with them then…
No! absolutely not. Its your brain and your book so you can take control of it. Here are 10 things to do when your brain starts reading from your negative book of scripts:
1) Notice when your script has been activated and what type of script is running
2) Remember you are not the script – it is just words from your book of negativity being read to you, it isn’t you
3) Discredit the script – what evidence proves the script wrong? When did the script say you would never get that job and you did? When did the script say you were unlovable and then you looked at your phone and saw a missed call from a friend? - Find all the evidence against the script
4) Make choices – instead of going along with the script make choices – choose what you are going to eat, to take a bath, to read, to call that friend, take a walk – anything as long as it done to your plan and not the scripts
5) Change your body posture – ok, I feel I’m losing you with this one but stay with me while I explain – the mind body connection is a thing. In fact, it’s a proven scientific thing, thanks to the work of Dr Candace Pert. Dr. P found that when we have a thought or feeling such as “I am useless” the mind sends peptides down into our body. These peptides knock on ever cell in our body and when the receptors open the metaphorical door the peptides tell them “the brain says we are useless” and the receptors go “oh, ok Ill tell the cell”. When it does the cells physiologically change to reflect this message – they actually change! Crazy huh! You may have experienced it – when you’ve been sad how has your body felt? Heavy, sluggish, no energy or motivation, shoulders slumped, everything looking down? How about when you are happy – shoulders back, head up, body coursing with energy to the point that even your fingertips are tingling and you just need to move? The great news is we can use this to our advantage – just as our mind can utilise one of our negativity scripts and send messages to the body – our body can send a message right back and change the mind. It again involves making a choice – move your body into a different position, put your shoulders back, stand tall, head up and move – this will send those peptides back up to your brain and say “the cells say we are happy” and the mind will go “oh, ok then”.
6) Exercise (sorry for swearing) but you have no doubt been told numerous times that exercise is good for you. Sorry folks, this is true! Exercise releases endorphins which are our natural happy hormone, it changes your body posture and gets you active which sends peptides to the brain to say “you are happy” it also, grounds you into the here-and-now – feeling the ground beneath your feet, the air move around you, senses engaged and thoughts directed to your movement and not reading from the script. This gives the higher order parts of your brain time to come on-line and begin applying logic, reason and context to the situation at hand – the script isn’t needed anymore!
7) Share and connect – scripts grow in prominence when they are left unchecked and can lead to shame, the belief and acceptance that you as a person are bad. Shame grows from silence and loneliness. Brene Brown says that:
“If you put shame in a petri dish, it needs three ingredients to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence, and judgment. If you put the same amount of shame in the petri dish and douse it with empathy, it can't survive.”
Empathy comes from sharing that script with someone and them saying “sounds like you’re in a pretty horrible place there, let me get in there with you and we can work out how to get out together” You aren’t alone anymore, your script has been directly challenged and your focus now shifts to problem-solving not script-accepting.
8) Consider your language – Quite often when we are running off an activated script our language changes. There becomes a lot of ‘shoulds’, ‘always’ and ‘will’ – very black and white in nature which feels inescapable, for if something ‘is always going to be this way then I will always feel this way’ – language is powerful so choose to use it to your advantage: Instead of ‘should’ how about ‘I wish I had tried X, maybe I could give it a go now’ or instead ‘I am or always’ try ‘I have felt x in the past, now I choose to …’ You could even utilise the power of language and tell yourself (out loud) “even though in the past I have felt …. I wholly and completely love myself” – sounds a little kooky but this sentence does a couple of things – it puts whatever your reptilian/meerkat brain is worried about into the past and directly challenges the script
9) Write it down – writing is powerful. By writing the thought down you can purge it from your mind. Having it in concrete form gives something concrete to look at and consider. It is easier to make sense of, challenge and consider if it deserving of your time and energy. It is easier to strategize or place in terms of its value. Writing it with pen and paper is preferable to typing as it engages different parts of your brain, bringing your higher-order brain on-line as you have to think about forming the letters and words. You don’t have to write sonnets or pages of insight; you don’t have to worry about spelling or grammar. Just write the thought as it comes to you, in its complete unedited form and release it.
10) Be grateful – when we feel anxious, overwhelmed or in danger our scripts quite often go to the ‘what ifs’ and begin catastrophising i.e. seeing the worst-case scenario as reality – this is a big one for me, and I was so thankful to discover that there is a really simple way to stop those thoughts in their tracks – embrace gratitude. When my mind goes to the ‘what ifs’ I simply notice and then stop and think ‘what am I grateful for right now?’ It could be the fact I have woken up today as I am aware lots of people around the world will not have, it could be that I have a safe and secure house, food to eat, fresh air to breathe, anything. Try to list 4-5 and repeat them to yourself. Anxiety and gratitude can not co-exist. They are 2 emotions that just can’t be experienced at the same time. So, by choosing gratitude you are grounding yourself back into the here and now (and not the worst-case future) and banishing anxiety and fear.
All this starts with noticing – once you have noticed you have choice of what to do with it, and that choice gives you power and control. You are not a hostage to your scripts, and your scripts are not something to feel shame about. They are the strategy of the oldest part of your brain (which is limited in resources) to keep you safe and by noticing this you can bring other resources on-line to help you in the here-and-now.
You’ve got this!
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